Jean-Louis André Théodore Géricault: La Balsa de la Medusa (1818-19)
Jean-Louis André Théodore Géricault: La Balsa de la Medusa (1818-19) | Wikipedia, public domain

Peter Weiss and Further Reflections of a Political Kind

Vol. II of Peter Weiss’ novel and documentary history, The Aesthetics of Resistance, laments struggles lost as Nazism and WWII take hold.

The Aesthetics of Resistance Vol II 
Peter Weiss
Duke University Press
March 2020

The second volume of The Aesthetics of Resistance by Peter Weiss begins, like the first, with a sustained response to a single work of art. This time, the narrator’s interest is not aroused, as before, by a monumental sculpture in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum but by a painting in the Louvre: Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa (La Balsa de la Medusa) (1818-19).

The narrator has left Spain, whereas a member of the International Brigade he supported the republican cause, and is living in Paris as a refugee. He is intrigued by an account he reads of the shipwreck that inspired Géricault and, viewing the painting, he is struck by its depiction of hopelessness. He relates this to the artist’s own despair after the failure of the French Revolution, a disappointment that ‘has been inscribed in him, like a scar’. There is synchronicity with the narrator’s anguish over the fascist victory in Spain and the political crisis unfolding around him in Europe.

The emotions solicited in the canvas – sorrow, apprehension, the loss of hope but the possibility of rescue – is also related to the historical background to the shipwreck: it was French colonial interests in west Africa that steered the Medusa towards Senegal and its passengers included the new governor of the colony as well as a group of abolitionists who sought to end the practice of slavery there. The narrator, sensing ‘how values could be created in art’, has to establish some lasting values for himself for he too has been scarred by the defeat in Spain.

He visits historical areas of Paris where past events point to the kind of journey he must now undertake: Montmartre, home to artists like Van Gogh, Gauguin, Pissarro, and Place Blanche where the Commune entrenched itself in 1871. Such places, he senses, ‘had left behind traces, signs of resistance.’

Amidst these reflections, with the maneuverings of politicians and diplomats over the  Sudetenland crisis providing little ground for optimism, the narrator turns to another painting, Ernest Meissonier’s The Barricade (Meissonier Barricade) and its depiction of the 1848 insurrection in Paris. There is a reading of the painting by Chelsea Werner (written over three decades after the death of Weiss) that is more detailed than the novel’s but it is one that its author would surely have endorsed.

Weiss, speaking through his protagonist in The Aesthetics of Resistance, is preternaturally responsive to the physical presence of streets and buildings that for him embody and echo emancipatory moments of political history. They haunt the present, bearing witness to the past: ‘their exteriors had become sensitive like a skin, and their interiors swelled by the breath of generations.’

His central character seeks out such places and enters into a dialogue with them even if, like the house where Marat lived or the dwellings of slaughtered Communards, they’ve been demolished; it’s enough to stand in the spaces they once occupied. In a similar spirit, he presses his comrade, the non-fictional Willi Munzenberg, to recall every possible detail of his personal meetings with Lenin in Russia after 1917; from the furniture in his office and what was on the walls and window to the contents of the adjoining kitchen.

The impetus fuelling these engagements with the past is as theoretically driven as its implementation is empirically minded. It is bound up with Walter Benjamin’s notion of redeeming the past by repeating it but with a different outcome. The alternative, liberatory outcome is one that was always potentially there even though – thwarted by reactionary forces that proved stronger or more cunning – it was not actualized at the time. Nonetheless, it remains as a utopian specter inhabiting the revolutionary memory.

In a similar spirit of progressive remembrance, and like the first volume in this respect, a host of non-fictional characters make their appearance in the second part of The Aesthetics of Resistance. Their names are not familiar ones, hence their presence in a novel that seeks to resurrect chronicles of struggle and resistance that are at risk of being interred and thereby erased from historical memory. As well as Willi Mùnzenberg, the reader is reminded of individuals like Sixten Rogeby, Charlotte Bischoff, anti-Nazi resistance fighters, and Rosalinde von Ossietzky-Palm (brief details of their lives are provided in the book’s glossary).

The plotline takes the narrator from Paris to Sweden and his time there occupies the second half of the book. Brecht, who indeed was in Sweden at the time, enters the scene and much space is given to a play he never completed. It was to have been about a 15th-century Swedish nobleman, Engelbrekt Engelbrektsson, and his rebellious opposition to the bourgeoisie that was emerging at the time. Readers may well find this less than gripping when compared to the reactions of the narrator and his comrades, members of the Communist Party, who find themselves having to grapple with Stalin’s volte-face and the 1939 German-Soviet Pact.  

Volume II ends with the departure of Brecht from Sweden by sea, for what he hopes will be a safer place of refuge after Hitler’s invasion in 1940 of Norway and Denmark. As Brecht boards his vessel, swastikas are seen on one side flying from the nearby German embassy and, from the other side, a German freighter in the vicinity: ‘Between the two, on his way across the footbridge, Brecht broke down, had to be held up, almost carried on board.’ It is a haunting image embodying the triumph of fascism and the Nazi apocalypse about to engulf Europe.

The first volume of The Aesthetics of Resistance, reviewed here on PopMatters, showed how the stage rehearsal for this unfolded in Spain’s civil war. The consequences of Europe’s liberal democracies ignoring that struggle are laid bare in the second volume.

Additional recommended reading:

The false friends of Peter Weiss, German dramatist, filmmaker and novelist”, by Stefan Steinberg. World Socialist Website. 20 October 2016.

RATING 10 / 10